I once checked a book out of our public library because I was working out (in fear and trembling) what I believed about a particular theological issue. In the middle of a section that I found confusing and wrongheaded, someone had taken a pencil and marked a paragraph in the margin with the word “NO!” written boldly next to it. I am scandalized by writing in my own books, so writing in library books is beyond the pale. But that stranger, whoever he or she was, gave me the courage both to finish the book and to accept that I didn’t agree with its conclusions.
The bits and pieces of other people that we find in books are like a conversation with someone we don’t quite know. I recently came home from our excellent used bookstore with a book inscribed with the name of a friend of a friend. When I sent word that I had bought the book, I received news that she thought the book was “just okay.” I had to recalibrate, because I had calculated my purchase not just on the author and the blurb but also on the name inside. Two of Ranagathan’s Laws of Library Science apply in this situation: “every book its reader” and “every reader his or her book.” In other words, she may not have loved it enough to keep it, but it might be just the book for me.
Library books in the middle school where I work generally are not inscribed with names or dedications (although I recently discarded a few for some colorful language written on the inside front cover — in orange marker, of course), so placing a book with its reader and a reader with her book looks somewhat different there. The books on my shelves are more likely to have class notes or drawings inserted inside as evidence of who might have come before. Finding a gossipy note is often a highlight of my week, and I have been known to stage dramatic readings of these artifacts that depict the lives and loves of middle school students. For example, “My grilled cheese was so good, well, okay, love you.” “My grilled cheese was good too, baby, and I know you love me to death.”
Although annotations and underlined words are more often found in a used bookstore, my library books have clearly been marked in other ways. Some of them have been through rainstorms and survived teething baby sisters. Those can usually be salvaged, unlike the ones that are mysteriously sticky. After I remove the paper scraps and clean them up the best I can, do the previous readers disappear? I hate to think that there is nothing left of them besides the grease from the grilled cheese. If Ranagathan was right, and I think that he was, then part of the magic of connecting a reader with a book comes from the book itself, and surely library books in particular carry parts of their readers with them in ways that can’t quite be explained.
When I was in graduate school getting my Master’s in Library Science, I had a professor who referred to the gift of finding just the book you need on the shelves — whether as a library patron or a library employee — as the “Blessing of St. Melvil.” You probably know St. Melvil as the creator of the Dewey Decimal System (which, of course, you were forced to memorize in school). Most library users, whether they remember the Dewey Decimal System or not, have experienced the serendipity of discovering just the right book at the library. At my school, again and again, St. Melvil has provided. Somehow I have just read or just shelved or just checked in the perfect title to answer a particular question. Sometimes I have no idea whatsoever but will manage to put my hand on the exact book I need before I have a chance to turn to the computer for help. Clear evidence of St. Melvil at work.
Certainly I am grateful for St. Melvil’s assistance, and of course I have good training as well as ten years of experience under my belt. I smile to see students recommend books to one another in breathless terms. However, there are some connections that cannot be explained unless the books themselves get a little credit. We love the idea of a room full of shelves, but surely the books want to be read, to be out in the world making connections. Do they whisper to the reader who gets lost between the shelves and then between the pages? And do the readers whisper back with each turn of the page? As a reader myself, I know how books have changed me. So likewise,does a book come back to the shelf somehow changed by the person who read it?
I have to believe that it does. A book that has been read and loved by a long chain of readers must carry that love with it until it simply falls apart. The copies of Little Women and The Great Brain that I got from the library as a child were worn and clearly read. I can say the same for copies of The Giver and The Bluford Series on my library’s shelves today. When you hold a book that has connected with someone else, can’t you feel it? These books were carefully selected and processed for the library. They have been read by different students throughout the years. Whether a book was loved or hated or left unfinished, I believe that every person the book comes in contact with adds to its presence. On my shelves they are a great cloud of witnesses.
When the Bible uses the phrase “great cloud of witnesses” in the book of Hebrews, it refers to the heroes of the faith who came before. Whether we remember them or not, they exist, linking the past to the present. In the same way, the connections that begin with a book continue beyond its pages, linking us one to another, whether we know it or not. I bear witness to this serendipity as much as I can, but even I cannot see everything that the books know. This is my calling: not just to the kids and the school, but also to the books. From long ago they have called to me and I continue to answer. Every day I aim to honor both the books and the readers by helping them find one another.
Kari Baumann is a middle school librarian in North Carolina. She enjoys young adult literature, politics, and Connie Britton’s hair. She writes about seeing and being seen at www.throughaglass.net.